Because Film is Next

I have many friends in the filmed entertainment industry working at all levels of production and in just about every department.  Some of them follow my blogs with interest, others just to be nice, and others I suspect wonder why I bother at all.  There are many reasons why I choose to focus on matters related to the digital age, but even if I didn’t care about politics or social issues, I’d care for this reason alone:  because film is next.

Technically speaking, the digital distribution of filmed entertainment, both legal and illegal, is roughly 15 years behind music. Acceptable quality streaming, for those who care about quality, is less than five years old, so we’re still on the leading edge of digital distribution and the inevitable convergence of TV and Web for the majority of viewers. While small-town theaters like the one I’m working with try to raise funds for the costly conversion to digital projection, many wonder if the next generation of viewers will even bother going to big-screens in the future.  At the same time, we see some exciting but challenging developments in DIY film production that both the Web and consumer electronics industries are only too happy to champion.

I know that my contemporaries have experienced massive shifts in work-for-hire on small productions (e.g. commercials, industrials, cable TV) in the last few years.  In general, the day rates for crew members and post-production professionals have not only not kept up with the cost of living, they have actually gone down in many cases.  Among other factors, the flood of affordable, easy-to-learn, digital products has reduced the value placed on professional skills, and many professionals are expected to perform the job of 2-3 people for the rate of one.  This trend really took seed in the early 1990s with the development of non-linear, digital editing, which gave rise to concepts like the Preditor, a hybrid Producer/Editor.

On the other end of production, as high-quality digital cinema has really broken significant barriers with cameras like the Arri ALEXA and Red, the demand for experienced professionals in every department actually increases in concert with improved resolution and complexity of dynamic workflows. As cinematographer Steven Poster indicated in my interview with him last week, at the level at which he works, digital is more complex and more expensive for a variety of reasons.

I don’t know this for sure, but my sense is that neither my colleagues in the big, studio-model game nor those in the purely indie universe are spending a ton of time considering the future of film in the digital age. But I believe now is the time to pay attention, and we’re fortunate to have the music industry to study for guidance.  I know it’s popular, even among artists in the business, to bash the big boys; but my concern is that the pros and cons of organizations like the MPAA, for instance, are really beside the point with regard to the many issues worth examining for the filmmaking community.

Let’s accept that our industry has its political arm, and so does the Web industry (in fact they’ve just announced a new and powerful lobby) and so does the consumer electronics industry.  Let’s assume that each multi-billion-dollar industry is out to serve its own interests and that this is politics and business as usual.  Not that we should ignore these things, but I do believe too much attention in this direction results in generalizing and polarization, which doesn’t serve the community of creators nearly so much as it serves one industrial interest or another.  For instance, it doesn’t make sense to me to be an indie filmmaker who outright rejects all of the efforts of the mainstream movie business, when many of our interests are utterly aligned.

Film production, distribution, and marketing is multiple times more complex than music; and no matter how anyone chooses to spin the data on the effects of the digital age on the music industry, the bottom line is that fewer professionals in that business are making a living than were doing so fifteen years ago.  As such, I am unsatisfied with the premise that threats like online piracy are merely a challenge to be met by changing business models.  I hear this generalization from Web-centric voices all the time but have yet to imagine a practical way in which what they’re selling does not mean the end of a sustainable, thriving industry that produces one of America’s leading exports.  (Either that, or Google wants to be the new movie studio.)

I’m open to hearing ideas from film professionals — people who know how to budget, produce, and actually make motion pictures — how any of these “new model” mantras make sense.  But when I look at journalism, which still struggles; I look at music, which has sustained big losses; it’s hard not to believe that film really is next. I think now is the time for more filmmakers to be discussing these matters and I would love to hear from any of you.

© 2012, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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